Do you struggle with self-criticism? Us too! In fact, criticism whether from ourselves or from those around us can be a huge problem for so many of us. Here is where things get interesting. What does this struggle look like based on our attachment style, and how can we listen to the way that we criticize ourselves and use that to move toward a more secure internal state of being by creating a secure script to talk to ourselves instead? Let’s dive into it. Listen to the full episode below!
Recognizing Your Critical Inner Voice
Self-criticism is an embodied experience. It’s not a cognitive thought that we can just stop because it is happening physiologically. What does your internal critical dialogue sound like or feel like? There is probably a theme to it. Is it that you’re stupid, ugly, not good enough…et cetera? Is it that you lack work ethic and know better like Ann, or a visceral sense of attack of the core value of self and worth like Sue? These painful scripts are going to be unique to you based on your internal working model. Your self-talk might hint towards your unconscious script, your internal working model, but if you step back and really examine it, we can begin to flip the script by understanding why our dialogue sounds the way it does and how to change it.
Secure Attachment/Secure State
What’s interesting is that even if we have a secure attachment style or are in a secure state, we can still experience self-criticism. The wonderful thing is that we have the capacity to mentalize the experience where we can look at the feeling we are experiencing, sit with it, and work through it. In the brain, the lingual gyrus, part of visual cortex, lights up, so it is as if we are examining the thought and actively working it out. Basically, we have the capacity to mentalize, which is essentially observing ourselves from the outside. There isn’t an overwhelming of the nervous system.
Self-criticism in general can activate a sense of a threat response in our amygdala. For individuals with Dismissive/Avoidant Attachment (or Blue as we call it), there is an amygdala response, but there is not as much lingual gyrus activation. It is speculated that this overwhelms the coping system and suppresses the ability to mentalize. It is quite literally a dismissing state of mind, which means we are often dismissing our own emotions and those of others as well. When it comes to self-criticism, the feelings of threat become too much, and it becomes suppressed. The experience of someone in the Blue is that they are likely to be more critical of the other person rather than self-attack. Criticism evokes a threat to the identity of self, and the narrative in that threat response is “How could you say that about me?” While self-criticism is not incorporated, criticism from others causes a defensive response which leads to wanting to cut it off, wanting to either eye roll, shut it down, move away, withdraw, leave, et cetera.
Preoccupied (or Red as we call it) self-criticism of centers on criticism related to relationships. In the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate and the interior insular regions become more activated in addition to the amygdala response. Individuals who fall into the Red likely struggle with self-criticism more than other internal working models because the core of Preoccupied/Anxious attachment is that we haven’t really learned to trust ourselves. What this looks like is that there is a frequent experience not only of self-doubt but also that we are causing those around us to push us away. Examples of this are going over and over a conversation that went poorly hours after it has happened. Then either self-attacking or projecting that self-attack out on the world, meaning we are imagining the self-attack, but it is coming from someone else. We project our own insecurity onto other people and then feel as if it is coming toward us. The narrative associated with Red is “How could you do this to me?” A sensitive amygdala causes us to interpret things as threatening and misinterpret them as negative.
What to do About it?
Recognize that these responses are not cognitive processes. These aren’t things that we can just stop doing. They are physiological responses to our internal working models. However, they are not life sentences and can be changed.
Don’t try to resolve issues while in conflict. When we’re in a secure place, we have the ability to mentalize. When you’re upset, pointing out the criticism while activated on either side is just not productive because we don’t have the mental capacity to mentalize, reflect, and process those important things. When we have calmed down, our hippocampus – the part of the brain that can begin to form autobiographical memory – has come back online, and then we can have a conversation that is conducive to creating change.
Practice Secure Attachment Priming, which is the process of priming our bodies for positive social support in any way calms these regions of our minds and our brains that we're talking about that get activated and pull us more into our secure way of relating where we are building a more secure relationship with ourselves. You can use photos of things like puppies, couples lying together or embracing, a mother gazing at her baby, etc.
Practice Secure Scripts
Practice self-compassion by talking ourselves through hard times in way that allows us to move toward security.
“It's okay for them to need me. I might fail sometimes, but I'm going to be able to help this person.”
“It's okay that I lost my temper. I was way activated. It's okay. It's because my body did that. I'm okay. And not only am I okay, but I trust that this other person's going to be okay. I haven't broken them and if they need help, they're going to get the help they need. Or maybe they'll turn to me and I can help them be okay.”
“It's okay for me to need something. I get to need things. Sometimes I get to ask for help. I don't have to be perfect.”
“I did this really dumb thing, but I'm okay.”
“I did this thing, but I'm not the thing.”
“I did this, but I'm not this. I let myself down because I wasn't prepared, but I am generally a really good person. I'm really worthy. I screwed this thing up, but I am worthy, and I’m going to get a second chance.”
If you you've really heard of friend's feelings and you just are horrified, imagine the secure ending instead of being preoccupied with a negative ending. Imagine things will be okay.
“When I lose my shit and I no longer keep my thinking on. That's still okay.”
“If we lose it, we lose it, and then there's another beat and then there's another beat. And on that third or fifth or 20th beat, we get to stand back up and hold her head up and make repair and do what we need to do to handle that.” – Sue Marriott
“That's what it's all about. It's all about being able to repair with ourselves and being to repair with others when we have lost it. And once we repair our body, we have to have repair. That's what, that's what true parenting and true connection and true relationships about. It's not getting it right. Is being able to say I screwed up. I'm sorry. We're there.” – Ann Kelley
“Music, Emotion, and Therapy – Interview with Bob Schneider” – Therapist Uncensored, Episode 45
Therapist Uncensored is a top-ranked podcast delivering the relational sciences and whatever else we feel may heal humans. Sue Marriott LCSW CGP and Ann Kelley PhD are hosts of the show, they ensure that this life-changing information remains free and accessible across the world. Join their Neuronerd Patron community here.